Looking for great, free photos to use for your design projects? There are plenty of great free resources to take advantage of that provide excellent stock photography for anything from photo manipulation compositions to editorial projects, and more! In this article, I take a look at my favorite FREE stock photo websites that I’m using for my work in 2020. Each website has great photo (and in some cases video) resources, though the websites mentioned below differ in their strengths and weaknesses.
Best for: landscape or nature photography and stock video
Pixabay offers a variety of high-quality images, with a wide selection of photographs taken by photographers around the world. This website tends to have professional quality landscape-style images – meaning a lot of the better photographs on the site feature more outdoor scenery like forests, mountains, lonely stretches of road, water, etc. There is also a lot of nature photography on Pixabay – including many photos with brilliant close-up shots of wildlife. Since the photographers that upload to the site are from all across the globe, there are tons of different cultural and environmental backdrops to choose from.
If you’re looking for a solid landscape background for something like a website or piece of literature, or want to use animals in your compositions (for anything from photo manipulations to vector logo designs), you will thoroughly enjoy this site.
Pixabay does also have portrait photography as well, though you may have to do a bit of digging to find the exact model or style you’re looking for as the selection is more limited than other sites. However, when you find a great photographer and view their portfolio, there can often be some great shot collections. Plus, the models are very diverse due to the global nature of the site.
The “Editor’s Choice” filter feature makes it easy to showcase what the editors of the site have deemed the best photographs. With this filter turned off, there are still great finds that perhaps the editors missed. But there can also tend to be lots of sub-par or amateurish looking images or photo manipulations that create clutter around the nicer photos.
Finally, you can also download free stock videos, illustrations, vectors and music. I’ve personally only used the free stock videos in my projects, which I highly recommend. I wasn’t a huge fan of the style of vectors and illustrations the site offers, but some of you may find something you like that works just fine for you.
Despite its shortcomings, you can find some great content on Pixabay to use in a variety of projects.
Best for: portrait photography and stock video
The next website on this list is Pexels, which offers the best stylistic and artsy photos of any of the free stock websites. If you’re looking to reach a younger crowd with your content, Pexels’ style is definitely going to be your cup of tea. The site’s photos typically feature younger models, more modern scenery, and editing techniques that emulate an Instagram filter.
Pexels tends to be more consistent in its quality than Pixabay – probably due to more stringent guidelines and requirements for photographers looking to upload their photos to the site. Plus, the site’s home page as you scroll through is often organized based on the colors featured in the photos – making it easy to create motifs. For example, as you scroll through the home page, you may notice that colors with lots of yellow are grouped together, followed by images with lots of gray, then blue, etc. You’ll also find stock videos mixed in with the stock photos, and the stock videos use the same sorting/categorization as the images. This makes it easy to find photos that have the same theme or aesthetic.
Overall, the Pexels site has a lot of great portrait photos to choose from. The portraits are usually candid in nature, making the photos look more natural and effortless.
A downside of the Pexels site is that it sometimes sucks up the memory of your browser and causes it to crash (at least this is the case if you use Google Chrome). You can also occasionally see lots of black boxes instead of photographs, or have the entire web page turn black while you’re scrolling – another issue cause by its intense use of browser memory. Finally, the site tends to be a bit heavy with the “hipster” aesthetic, and the backgrounds are usually busy (i.e. not taken in a studio environment – which can make it hard for those of you looking to add text to photos or remove a background around a subject).
In the end, this is a great site for candid and modern portrait photography.
Best for: editorial and relevant photos
The last site I’ll cover for this article is Unsplash. This site is by far the best site for editorial photography – featuring its own dedicated “Editorial” section and offering many great photographs for this category. Additionally, you can search through topical categories like “COVID-19” and “Current Events,” or more popular/common categories like “Travel” and “Business & Work.”
Unsplash takes a unique approach to engaging its community of photographers, creating “Topics” that photographers can upload images to. These topics are interactive and display an “open” or “closed” status (depending on whether or not the site is taking submissions for that category), making it a great way for the site to collect relevant content in a timely manner. It also makes uploading to the site more fun for creators, which helps produce better photos for all of us to use in our work.
For example, the site had a “Sustainability” topic, which is now closed for new submissions, and also has a “COVID-19” topic, which is still open. Unsplash often creates these topics, though other site users (including brands) can create topics that request contributions. Photos from closed AND open topics can be downloaded at any time on the site.
Unsplash does not offer stock videos at the time of this article.
In my opinion, Unsplash is the most organized and interactive of the three stock photo websites. It has the widest variety of professional-grade images for specific categories. However, Unsplash does not fare quite as well when it comes to portrait images. It also lags behind when it comes to your standard, staged stock photo scenes that feature people (i.e. coworkers working together at a desk, a woman working on her computer at a coffee shop, etc.).
Unsplash IS a great resources for anyone writing a news piece on current events. It also has its fair share of eye-catching landscape, nature, and architectural photography. It’s photos come from all over the world, providing a great diversity of locations and people.